Discrimination’s Greatest Hits

So I’m still reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. As a person who grew up in a free, liberal democracy bitching about things like unsubsidized public transport and inadequate nutrition labeling, the kind of violations Solzhenitsyn describes are utterly foreign to me.

I think the main reason I keep going ‘wait, what!’ on every page is because the treatment Russia meted out against its own people is so extreme that I didn’t even know governments could do that.

Not one citizen of the former Russian state who had ever joined a party other than the Bolshevik Party could avoid his fate. He was condemed unless, like Malsky or Vyshinsky, he succeeded in making his way across the planks of the wreck to the Bolsheviks. He might not be arrested in the first group. He might live on, depending on how dangerous he was believed to be, until 1922, 1932, or even 1937, but lists were kept; his turn would and did come; he was arrested or else politely invited to an interrogation, where he was asked just one question: Had he been a member of such and such, from then till then? […]

This was a grandiose silent game of solitaire, whose rules were totally incomprehensible to its contemporaries, and whose outlines we can appreciate only now. Someone’s far-seeing mind, someone’s neat hands, planned it all, without letting one wasted minute go by. They picked up a card which had spent three years in one pile and softly placed it on another pile. And the person who had been imprisoned in a central prison was thereby shifted into exile — and a good way off. Someone who had served out a “minus” sentence was sent into exile, too, but out of sight of the rest of the “minus” category, or else from exile to exile, and then back again into the central prison — but this time a different one. Patience, overwhelming patience, was the trait of the person playing out the solitaire.

And without any noise, without any outcry, the members of all the other parties slipped gradually out of sight, lost all connection with the places and people where they and their revolutionary activities were known, and thus — imperceptibly and mercilessly — was prepared the annihilation of those who had once raged against tyranny at student meetings and had clanked their Tsarist shackles in pride.

When Mormons or atheists or asexuals or libertarians complain that they are being discriminated against, I’m broadly sympathetic. Hey, I’m the member of a minority group that objectively enjoys lesser state protections than the majority. I feel you, bro.

But it’s good to know what real discrimination looks like. I’ll never be thrown in a labour camp or banished to fucking Vermont or whatever for the rest of my life. I’ll never be tortured until I give the names of my homosexualest friends or publicly confess to something I didn’t do. I’ll never lose my job or my house or my bank account or my children because I joined an Ayn Rand mailing list when I was 14. I’ll never have to contemplate the sheer inefficiency of barring me from ever working again because of something I once read or signed.

I’m not saying that Western liberals can’t ever claim they’ve been discriminated against because at least you still have your arms and legs, buddy. Solzhenitsyn’s book isn’t an endlessly repeating lesson in how we’re so much better than Soviet Russia. It’s a reminder that we should always be on the lookout for ways in which we’re not.

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Serious

One response to “Discrimination’s Greatest Hits

  1. I’ve long wanted to read The Gulag Archipelago but the sheer scope of that massive tome continues to frighten me. I have read, and very much enjoyed, The First Circle which probably covers some of the same ground but with what could only be a relatively happy tone. Perhaps something to wean you off the horrors of what people can do to each other when you’re done, unless you used it to step into the saddle of abject misery.

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